Safety and the Door Zone

Image Source: Richard Masoner

We often discuss helmet use, infrastructure, and accident statistics, but hopefully, we all know bicycling is a relatively benign activity that doesn’t warrant so much focus on safety. Really all we need to do is get some training and treat the bicycle with the respect it deserves as a vehicle. Beyond that, I believe we should leave it to each person to decide where they ride, and how they outfit themselves for that ride.

That said, there is one safety infraction I want to bring up because I see it so often. Just today, I took a 5 block walk at lunchtime, and in that short distance I saw a half dozen bicyclists riding at speed, squarely within the door zone, on a busy one way street crowded with traffic. Two of these riders were professional bike messengers. An inattentive motorist exiting any of the many cars parked along the route could have resulted in serious injury to the bicyclists.

Without a doubt, riding in the door zone is the most common, but easily resolved, dangerous riding activity I encounter. If there’s not enough room to clear the doors of parked cars, we need to either take the lane, get up on the sidewalk, or find another route. Barreling down a busy road, squarely within the door zone, hoping and betting that no one opens a car door, is just asking for trouble.

37 Responses to “Safety and the Door Zone”

  • bongobike says:

    Been there, been doored, not fun… :(

  • Eric says:

    Do I spy a “bike Lane” sign in the background? Where?

    Eric.

  • Ralph Aichinger says:

    Absolutely!

    Cyclists riding in the door zone are basically asking to be doored. While — of course — drivers or car passengers should watch out for cyclists, they rarely do. When I cannot avoid the door zone, I go very slowly and with one hand on the brake lever.

    Unfortunately here in Austria cycle paths do force cyclists into the door zone in many spots.

  • Pete says:

    If I weren’t for the door zone I couldn’t ride anywhere!

  • Alan says:

    @Pete

    :-))

  • rick says:

    Getting doored: ah, the memories…. about twenty years ago, in Boise of all places, I was doored on a weekend morning while riding about 20 mph…. never saw it coming, and I broke a couple of fingers. I do believe the poor fellow who opened his door without looking won’t ever do it again, though: after I recovered, I threw my bike through his windshield!

    Kids, don’t try this at home…. LOL!

  • Richard Masoner says:

    The photo is a good illustration of how *not* to ride, but there is a story behind it. Dolin and I were cruising down the street at about 5 MPH — I was to her left, and I guess she felt uncomfortable with the line of traffic forming behind us as I photographed her (this is downtown San Jose during the evening commute), so she scooted right into the doorzone for a moment, and there you go.

    @Eric: We’re in the bike lane — it’s to the left of parking spaces and I think it’s about 5 feet wide there. You can see the full bike lane width at this location in this photo.

  • Billi says:

    I urge anyone who thinks they know how big the door zone is to watch this video This is Preston Tyree teaching an LCI class, I saw him do this demo when I was taking the LCI class, and I realized everything I ever heard on how far to ride from parked cars was wrong. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TQ7aID1jHs

  • townmouse says:

    I have to admit I play the odds with the door zone. If it’s a residential parking spot and the car’s been there for a while, and I can’t see anyone in it, and the street is narrow, I take the risk. When it’s a row of cars outside a shop on a short stay (20 mins) bay, I’ll be more assertive about taking the lane if I have to. Our streets are often narrow enough that cars, bikes and buses all do have to squeeze past each other at times; we can’t just stand on our rights as cyclists and let everyone else go hang. I think it’s fine if you’re alert and riding reasonably slowly and paying attention.

    That said, I’ve had a couple of close shaves where I wasn’t paying attention and had to make the choice between swerving out into traffic and hitting a door. Fortunately never more than a close shave…

  • Andy says:

    Here in Berkeley, our bike lanes are squarely in the door zone. To avoid doors, I tend to ride the white line that separates the car lane from the bike lane. A couple of weeks ago, a driver honked at me, pulled up next to me at a stop sign, and said “You have your own lane!” I yelled “I’m trying to avoid doors” as he drove away, but I doubt that he heard me, and if he heard me, I doubt that he understood what I was talking about.

  • Supp Suppinger says:

    Alan, there is always enough space!!! If there can drive cars on the street, there is enough space fo You as a cyclist to leave enough space on both sides of You at the door zones! Just drive on that street that was built with Your taxes! The streets were not built for cars, but for people. Use them! Yes, suddenly opening door I would personally rate as most dangerous things riding in a city!

  • Sharper says:

    I was about to post in the most recent helmet thread about how bicycling is not an inherently dangerous activity, though there are ways to ride more dangerously; but here you go and beat me to it, Alan!

  • gio says:

    also remember that its important to keep an eye out for side mirrors. Often you can see if someone is in the car, and if they are, locking eyes with them is a good way to say “hey i’m here please dont swing your door into me.” But regardless, its good to know if someone is in the car as it makes you more cautious (pulling out, dooring, etc). As mentioned above, the safest thing to do is to almost straddle the left white bike lane line.
    “been there, doored that” :)

  • Jim says:

    I haven’t been doored, but I’ve had a couple of near-misses. This video that made me extra-
    vigilant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TQ7aID1jHs

    Of course, it’s not directed to drivers, who also need this info.

  • Chuck says:

    This is a problem where I live as well. So much so that it has come under scrutiny from state and local officials.
    Under a proposed Wisconsin law, bicyclists wouldn’t be ticketed if they slam into a opening door of a parked car under a bill before the Legislature. The bill, AB 59, would omit a state law that requires bicyclists – but not cars – to stay 3 feet away from parked vehicles. This bill has failed to be passed.
    In Madison a proposal was presented that hitting a biker, car or pedestrian with a car door could cost drivers between $20 and $40 for the first offense and between $50 and $100 if they do it twice within a year.
    The final measure in Madison I believe passed in March 2009 requires motorists to check before they swing open a car door into oncoming traffic, whether it be a 120-pound bicyclist or a two-ton truck. Blasting either would generate a $100 fine.

  • Robert Prinz says:

    One of the scariest things I see people do on a regular basis is double up in a bike lane, riding side by side. I agree that it is nice to talk with someone while you are biking, but riding this way gives you absolutely no way to avoid a door, even if you are lucky enough to see it coming. I ride with friends all the time but always insist on single file in the bike lane, and only double up on residential streets with sharrows when there is no traffic present.

    @Andy, I second you on the small Berkeley lanes, especially on Milvia St downtown. I usually ride outside of the bike lane entirely there, which in some places is only 4 feet wide. I think the legal standard for bike lanes next to parked cars is now 5 ft, but I only feel comfortable riding in 6 ft lanes or larger. Planners around here should look to Adeline St in Emeryville to see how it should be done.

  • Moopheus says:

    Around here we have streets where even the cars are forced into the door zone, and I am surprised there are not more accidents, though I suppose it explains some of the shards of car bits one sees in the gutter. I use the bike lanes where I can, but I ride as far from the door as I can get away with, no matter what the street marking. Some of the bike lanes are much narrower than 4 or 5 feet, making them essentially not lanes.

    I’ve seen people hug pretty close to parked cars when they ride, and weaving in and out of the empty parking spaces. I guess it makes them feel safer being further from the moving cars, but they don’t realize they’re actually at greater risk.

  • Jay says:

    This is a tricky one for me. I live in the Boston area, and many bike lanes are next to cars that are parallel parked, and usually at least partly within the door zone.

    I usually stay to the outer side of the bike lane in these instances, but those narrow Boston/Somerville/Cambridge streets can be tricky. I’ve got several busy streets in mind – one lane each way, with no bike lane.

    I’m not afraid to take the lane generally, and I have absolutely no problem taking the lane when there is at least one lane that drivers can use to pass me, but I don’t like to take the lane on these narrow, busy streets during rush hour. During rush hour particularly, cars build up behind you, and the drivers get very irritated, and will zoom around too close, at high speeds. But they also do that if I ride too close to the parked cars so that they can get by me, so it’s not great either way. The best solution I suppose is to go another way, but the hills and lack of direct streets, and too many wrong-way one way streets makes that difficult!

  • Fergie348 says:

    Be especially aware of taxicabs parked or at the side of the road. People leaving a taxi never look..

    I was doored in Berkeley along College Avenue in the early 90′s when I first got here. No helmet either – lucky for me the door hit my pedal and I kind of bounced off. The driver was German and extremely apologetic, but I never forgot it.

    Take the lane when you need to and wave people by when you can. I’ve gotten yelled at many times for taking the lane, but if you want me to compromise my safety for your convenience, think again.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    I always cycle out of the door zone, but one problem I experience is that faster cyclists often choose to pass me on the right – between me and the very car doors I am trying to avoid. If they get doored as they are passing me, I will likely get knocked into traffic. No idea how to deal with this, and it happens quite often in Boston.

  • Pete says:

    Discussions like these make me realize why there is such cameraraderie among cyclists. It’s really rough out there. We constantly weigh comfort and risk, the devil you know and the devil you don’t. We know that, legally, we “belong” but we also know it’s hard to negotiate that position from a hospital bed, or a grave. By definition we lose every argument we have with a car.
    My meager 3 mile commute is equal parts quiet suburban streets, the door zone, and the sidewalk (when there is just no way to ride on the street). We take risks every day to do what we love, and it’s terribly important that we keep doing it.

  • Christina says:

    Thanks for the reminder. Wish I’d have read it last March before my own dooring, but I recovered fine.
    This is something that it’s easy to forget- unlike oncoming traffic or cars coming up behind you, you don’t see the door until it hits you.
    I also think you’re less likely to be doored on a busy road- drivers know they have to look before opening their doors. It’s the side streets with little traffic where people are more likely to just hop out. But of course both situations require diligence!

  • patrick says:

    On a one way street the rider should be on the left side of the road. You are less likely to get doored and when drivers pass you can see their face and exchange pleasantries.
    Im quite fond of the one way grid. You simply ride on the left until the perpendicular road goes left then you hop to the right side through the intersection (and around those guys who dont feel like signaling their turn) then head back over to the left side.
    Doors are dangerous, and I dont see that changing.

  • Gee says:

    In Taiwan this is not a problem. People getting out of cars know very well to check the mirror first. Because they will get totally smashed if a scooter hit them. This isn’t the door zone there, it’s the scooter zone. People respect the possibility of getting hurt, not the possibility of hurting someone else.

  • Nicolas says:

    In my town – Rennes, Brittany, France – many bike lanes are painted in the door zone too.

  • bongobike says:

    @Billi,

    Thanks for posting a link to that video. Every cyclist should watch it. Preston Tyree is an excellent bike safety teacher.

  • Will says:

    John Schubert, technical editor of Adventure Cyclist magazine, has been lobbying against bike lanes because most (a) are misplaced too close to cars, and (b) create the impression to motorists that bikes have no right outside the lane. There are a few articles in the Adventure Cyclist archive (http://bit.ly/5fRevQ), and of particular interest is his story of Dana Laird in Cambridge, MA who was “doored” into a bus. (“The Door Prize to Avoid” by John Schubert, Adventure Cyclist, Jul 2004, pp. 28-29; download PDF at http://bit.ly/b4CXCB). Schubert also wrote in a League of American Bicyclists publication, “Nowhere else in traffic engineering would someone dream of posting a traffic control device that road users would need to disobey to save their lives.” (see http://www.labreform.org/pretending.html).

    Thanks Alan for starting this thread. Thanks Jim for the above video that tells the entire story in 2 minutes.

  • Garth Madison says:

    As long as cyclists share space with motorists, cycling definitely is an inherently dangerous activity. Your post recognizes this fact, by focusing on safety education with regard to avoiding collisions with car doors, yet states, at least partly in contradiction, that bicycling is a benign activity that does not warrant so much focus on safety. If riding in the door zone is asking for trouble, riding in the zone of the whole 3000 to 12000 pound car or truck at least contemplates the possibility.

    I would argue that we need exactly the kind of affirmative focus on safety demonstrated by the substance of this post, if not its dicta, through the education of both cyclists and motorists. The frequency of bicycle accidents (and motor vehicle or pedestrian accidents, for that matter) can be greatly reduced through education and caution, for anyone sharing the road, bike lane or sidewalk. Avoiding door collisions is a good example, as is avoiding collisions between bicycles and cars turning either right or left.

    Of course, basic safety regulations like helmet laws are not misplaced, either. We think nothing of safety devices such as seat belts in cars. I was certainly grateful enough for my helmet when a turning car planted me in the pavement last month and all I broke was my clavicle! Only a helmet can help you when education and providence fail.

    The discussion of door laws in Wisconsin is interesting. Where should we place blame and liability for door collisions? Clearly we want to encourage both parties to be careful. The motorist should not be opening his door in the first place without taking reasonable precautions like checking any traffic lanes. However, the cyclist cannot be said to be taking reasonable precautions if he is barreling past within a few inches of the door at a high rate of speed. Perhaps the legislature should place the higher burden on the motorist, at least one parking next to a traffic lane, but a focus on basic education will help avoid these accidents in the first place.

    Garth-

  • Andrew says:

    I shouldn’t, but for about half my commute I ride pretty much exclusively in the door zone. It’s also one of the densest areas in the entire city, so it’s more about dicing it up with slow / immobile traffic than it is blazing at 30 kph past a taxi stand.

    As I’ve gotten more comfortable with cycling, I’ve started taking personal safety a lot less seriously, which is probably not a good thing. I’m far less inclined to wear a helmet for most rides these days, and am generally becoming a less useful ‘ambassador of cycling’ by showing a good example. I’m over taking that responsibility…I’m just going to get where I’m going, and be mostly selfish like everyone else on the road.

  • Alan says:

    @Garth

    I’m not sure if you clicked the link in the OP, but we bicyclists (at least here in the U.S.) sometimes overstate the dangers of bicycling, a habit that may discourage new riders from giving it a try:

    http://www.ecovelo.info/2009/05/04/contrary-to-popular-belief/

    Of course, we want people to be safe, but an overemphasis on safety sends an inaccurate message about the risks involved.

    Alan

  • Garth Madison says:

    @Alan
    How much to emphasize safety is an interesting conundrum. I think one problem is that new riders often have no basic safety education, and their only contact with the cycling community and thus possible source for advice is their local bike shop, which often is not even competent or motivated enough to fit them on a properly sized bike with proper equipment. Venturing out on the road without such support can, to my mind, be as quick a way to discourage cycling as overemphasizing the risk, depending on the individual’s experience.

    I did not mean to condone fear mongering, merely to encourage a more affirmative focus on education. I am not sure how best to do it. You generally do not need a license to ride a bicycle, as you do a car, which allows at least some education and testing (say what you will about the quality). But I firmly believe that education can both reduce accident rates and improve the experience for new riders. Breaking a clavicle might make me even more committed to bike commuting, but it might have the opposite effect on someone less ornery! Encouraging both adoption and maintenance of cycling as a primary mode of transportation means making cycling as easy, safe and pleasant as possible from the beginning. The availability of affordable and appropriate equipment, the existence of proper infrastructure, and the easy assimilation of basic rules of the road and safety education are all part of that process.

    Garth-

  • Alan says:

    @Garth

    Yes! I agree; we need more and better rider training. I’ve even advocated for rider training programs in our public grade schools (which I was slayed for here on the blog… LOL). Early training would reinforce the idea in young minds that bicycles are more than just toys, which I believe would lead to more transportational bicycling in adulthood.

    Regards,
    Alan

  • Garth Madison says:

    We actually have one of those safety towns here, where kids can ride their bikes on the little roads with the traffic signs and such. I do not know how much it gets used anymore, though I know they were trying to get the state funds to upgrade it (good luck, given the state of the budget here in Illinois!). I am actually trying to put together a class out there for a community group I’m involved in, if there is enough interest. Kids ride bikes more than adults do, and as a result their parents usually don’t know the rules of the road, either. I’m with you, Alan, I think early training is a great idea.

    I was encouraged when one of my friend’s kids, who is about to start third grade, wanted to know if they could get a bike rack at our neighborhood school. He is very excited about the prospect of riding to school once they start back up. So I have started trying to raise money for one. There is an occasional glimmer of hope!

    Garth-

  • Scott says:

    Bike lanes next to parallel parking are like a really nasty prank, and these are basically the only bike lanes in downtown Sacramento. I refer to these bike lanes as “throw your door open without looking” lanes, because that’s what everyone does. They know they won’t get their door taken off by a car, so they’re less careful than on a street without bike lanes. I often take the lane, but the hostility that engenders makes bike riding as stressful as driving, if not more.

  • Scott says:

    For education, here’s a simple webpage that is very informative for novice bicyclists. Direct any friends new to bicycling, or just print it out & give it to them.
    http://BicycleSafe.com/

  • No says:

    > bicyclists wouldn’t be ticketed if they slam into a opening door

    Huh – are you saying that other vehicles would be ticketed for hitting an opening door? That’;s crazy, surely if opening a door causes an accident it is the person opening the door at fault, no the person hitting the door (whether pedestrian, car or cyclist).

  • Sacramennah says:

    To wit: “Hope is not a Plan.”

 
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